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Excerpt from
Natural Life Magazine's Green & Healthy Homes
by Wendy Priesnitz

From Chapter 7 - Renovating Your Home

Natural Life Magazine's Green & Healthy Homes Many of us are renovating our homes, spending more money annually on renovation than on new home construction. Since buildings are responsible for forty percent of worldwide energy flow and material use – and the largest share of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere – how you remodel can make a big difference to the environment.

Upgrading insulation, furnaces, cabinets, and fixtures like water heaters and toilets means less fossil fuel pollution and reduced resource depletion. It can also save you money in the long-run. However, renovations can be fraught with unintended consequences like indoor air pollution. There are so many aspects of green home renovation that I could write a whole book! But here are some general tips for undertaking your renovation in a healthy, environmentally friendly way.

A green renovation involves two interrelated concepts. One is to be as earth friendly as possible by using sustainable and/or recycled or reused materials, and to reduce energy and water use by employing measures like solar and geothermal heating, high-efficiency lighting, and green roofs. The other is to create a healthy living space by using nontoxic alternatives to conventional building products.

The current interest in environmentally friendly building and renovating has created a bit of a gold rush around the term “green,” with some products being labeled that way that aren’t, or that are, at best, a very pale shade of green, as I wrote in Chapter 1. Fortunately, there are some certification and labeling programs that can help the confused consumer sort out the green claims.

Lumber that has earned certification as sustainably harvested can be found at most lumberyards; appliances such as water heaters and refrigerators carry the U.S. government’s Energy Star rating labels; the Green Seal program recommends products like carpet, floor care products, wood finishes and stains, lighting and environmentally friendly room air conditioning; The UL Environment and Terrachoice’s EcoLogo programs certify everything from bamboo and other wood-substitute flooring products, carpeting, composting toilets and water-saving showerheads to exhaust fans, solar systems, wallboard, hot water tanks, and shingles.

Beyond labeling, use a common sense approach to purchase natural, non-petroleum-based, recyclable materials that will last longer and save landfills from being filled with poorly made junk. When choosing renovation products or fixtures, look for aggressive rates of recycled content, absence or reductions of undesirable chemicals like formaldehyde, and products that conserve resources and are manufactured locally from local materials.

Flooring

Reconsidering your floor surfaces is a basic aspect of converting to a green, healthy home. And if you have wall-to-wall carpets or a lot of rugs, you might want to replace them. While carpets provide a warm, cushiony surface for children who like to play on the floor, they can also release dust and fumes that cause sniffles, headaches, asthma, and other health problems.

More than two hundred chemicals – many of them petroleum based – are used in the manufacture and installation of synthetic carpets and their backings, not to mention the fact that even regular vacuuming fails to remove all the dirt, molds, dust mites, and pesticide residues tracked in from outside. Hard surface floors are much easier to keep really clean. If you like the look and feel of rugs, you can avoid all the problems by using smaller, washable carpets made from natural fibers.

Aside from being easier to keep clean than carpeting, wood floors can add value to a home and give it warmth and a natural aura. However, clear-cutting forests for their lumber can create loss of wildlife habitat, runoff into streams from erosion, and decline in carbon storage capacity, severely impacting climate change.

Some types of wood are better than others. Eucalyptus, for instance, is grown on very productive plantations, where stands of indigenous trees are interspersed to preserve natural habitat. The wood can be harvested in just fourteen to sixteen years, which is much faster than other premium hardwoods grown in colder climates.

Any new wood that you use should, ideally, have been cut from forests managed sustainably, such as that certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nonprofit organization whose certification program is backed by both industry and environmental organizations. Wood carrying this certification must be produced in a way that minimizes such environmental impacts as road building and erosion, keeps pesticide use to a minimum, protects species, and promotes diversity within the forest. There is a paper trail, called a chain of custody, back to the forest where the wood originated, so you know just how the wood has been grown, harvested, milled, stored, etc.

A better alternative, which avoids felling new trees altogether, is to use recycled wood. Old reclaimed wood is often salvaged from large warehouses and buildings, from landfills or urban tree salvage, from old barns, and even from riverbeds. Especially prized are the wide planks and massive hand hewn wood beams, in sizes that are unmatched in today’s lumber yards. Recycled lumber is strong and dense; it is also dry wood and is therefore unlikely to twist, warp, or shrink. It features deep, beautiful colors, character features, and a rich patina that can only be bestowed by time. And it also has a history that lends its story to your home. Heart pine, old growth oak, Douglas fir, cypress, and black cherry are all being rediscovered after centuries of growth and almost that many more years of aging. These rediscovered woods can be re-milled into boards used for flooring, moldings, stairs, cabinets, and furniture. Getting this old wood cleaned and ready to market is a labor-intensive job, so the price of reclaimed lumber is comparable to, or sometimes higher than, that of new wood.

Some recovered wood is certified under the FSC banner. SmartWood is a recovered wood certification program that authenticates the wood, providing a chain of custody document that describes the origin and handling of the wood.Some companies and trade organizations, such as the Reclaimed Wood Council, offer their own documentation and wood histories. For instance, wood obtained from a demolition contractor can be linked to an address and photos. Lost timbers recovered from riverbeds can be identified by the number of growth rings. Whatever the method, verify that the dealer is reputable before investing in recycled wood.

Another category of options is sometimes referred to as green wood products. These include formaldehyde-free composite wood panels, particle board made from waste wheat chaff, arsenic-free pressure-treated lumber, engineered structural wood, and plastic “lumber.” Most of these products are not certified, although there is some certified particleboard available and greater demand is leading to more certification. Often, green wood products use small, second-growth trees of lesser-used species, such as aspen and poplar, reducing the demand on species like Douglas fir and southern pine, and helping to preserve old-growth giants. They also often are made by recycling waste material like sawdust from other wood milling projects.

A less expensive alternative to wood flooring is tongue- and-groove strip flooring made from bamboo. Bamboo is very hard and strong. Environmentally, you cannot argue with a wood substitute that matures in three years, regenerates without need for replanting, and requires no or minimal fertilization or pesticides. However, many bamboo flooring products are made with an adhesive that contains urea-formaldehyde, which is a probable carcinogen, so be sure to look for one made with low-VOC adhesive.

If you want a resilient flooring for kitchen, bath, or family room, your contractor may also be able to locate rubber flooring, which is often used commercially. It is made from recycled tires through an energy efficient, low-waste manufacturing process, creating a tough, waterproof, slip- resistant floor. Available in rolls and tiles, rubber flooring can be cut, shaped, and customized to any length needed for easy installation and comes in many different color options.

Cork is another, more readily available, and generally less expensive, option. Contrary to what many people think, cork is not endangered (unless the market for it caves in and the forests are clear-cut). In fact, cork extraction is one of the most environmentally friendly harvesting processes in the world, with not a single tree cut down to get the cork. Cork cutters make precise incisions into the cork bark and then strip it off the trees. The cork bark grows back and is ready to cut again in nine years. Some trees in the ancient cork forests of Spain and Portugal are four hundred years old. The forests are home to the Iberian lynx and other endangered wildlife, and the conservation group WWF is concerned that the wine industry’s increasing use of synthetic and screw-top stoppers will lead to falling demand for cork and perhaps the destruction of the cork forests for other uses.

Cork flooring comes in a variety of types, including large tiles that are glued down, and tiles that are formed into a click-together system that is backed with chipped cork and has a fiberboard middle layer. The bottom layer provides excellent cushioning and resiliency, which is great in the kitchen, where a lot of standing happens. The click system does not need to be glued or nailed down and can be effortlessly lifted when you move or renovate. Another benefit of a click-together cork floor is that if one tile is damaged, it can be replaced without the need to tear apart the entire floor. Most click systems can be installed over radiant heat and are impermeable to water. Cork is fully recyclable and its final crumbs can be added to concrete to provide lightness and bulk, or allowed to biodegrade. Cork flooring is available through reputable flooring retailers. However, be sure to inquire about the middle layer, and the glues and finishes used, to be sure they are formaldehyde-free.

Lastly, and especially if you have kids, consider natural linoleum. Made with natural materials and installed with solvent-free adhesives, there are no harmful VOCs emitted. Its anti-static properties make linoleum a good choice for people with dust allergies. And its bactericidal properties guard against various micro-organisms often found in kitchens.

Walls

Repainting your home is perhaps the quickest and least expensive way to freshen things up. But it can negatively affect indoor air quality. According to the EPA, paints, stains, and other architectural coatings produce about nine percent of the VOC emissions from consumer and commercial products, making them the second-largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles. Formaldehyde is a VOC commonly found in paint. The EPA has found that indoor concentrations of VOCs are regularly up to ten times as high as outdoor concentrations, and can climb up to a thousand times as high as outdoor concentrations when you are applying paint.

Choosing paint based on its reportedly low level of VOCs can be problematic. Government regulations tend to allow products to be labeled as having zero or no VOCs even when they contain small amounts. Non-profit certifiers like Green Seal set more comprehensive requirements, but some paints may still contain harmful ingredients such as preservatives, fungicides, and biocides. Since VOCs and other toxins are often contained in the pigment added to paint at time of purchase, actual emissions may be higher than those quoted for the base paint. And since darker colors require more pigment, deeply colored paint may contain more VOCs than paler colors. So check the quality of the pigment being used, as well as the base paint; requesting the Material Safety Data Sheet for the pigment will help you to avoid obviously harmful substances like cadmium, mercury, and other heavy metals.

So-called latex paints have lower VOC levels than oil-based paints, simply because they use water as the carrier rather than petroleum-based solvents. Except for appearance, the latex used in paint is in no way connected with the natural latex used, for instance, in some kinds of rubber gloves, which can cause allergic reactions. Latex paint cleans up easily with water, so you don’t need harsh VOC-emitting solvents to work with it.

There is an increasing availability of natural paints, composed of materials such as citrus oil, lime, clay, linseed oil, and chalk. Because natural paints do not contain petroleum products, they emit few if any VOCs, and are healthy and environmentally friendly. They use linseed and soy oils as binders, pine- and balsam-derived turpenes or citrus oils as carriers, minerals as pigments, and lime and chalk as thickeners.

Milk-based paint, which is made from a milk protein called casein, is the least toxic and least environmentally damaging paint. It contains no VOCs, lead, formaldehyde, oils, or biocides. You can buy milk-based paint premixed or mix it yourself, which lowers shipping-related pollution because it weighs less. However, it is not suitable for use in kitchens or bathrooms because it can host mold.

Once you are finished repainting your home, you will inevitably have some paint left over, a problem shared by paint retailers, manufacturers, contractors, and others. The Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) estimates that thirty-four million gallons of leftover consumer paint are generated annually in the U.S. alone. PSI is working with governments, industry, and environment groups to develop leftover paint management solutions that are both financially and environmentally sustainable.

As a result, some companies are producing recycled finishes, although in a limited number of basic colors. These are reclaimed products made from mixing together unused portions of recovered conventional paints and stains. While decreasing waste, these products are only as healthy as the original product was.

Countertops and Cabinets

Make sure new kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room cabinets are made of certified wood with environmentally-sound finishes, use low VOC finishes and glues, and drawers made from renewable, formaldehyde-free products like wheatboard. This is a good place to repurpose used or even antique furniture for storage.

Countertops can feature recycled content, such as terrazzo-style slabs made with recycled glass. A durable, mineral-based solid surface, this material contains no resins or polymers and is made with glass diverted from landfills, old traffic lights, curbside recycling, manufacturer overruns, and factory scraps. Smooth as marble and four times stronger than concrete, it is an environmentally-friendly alternative to synthetic, engineered surface materials.

Another choice for countertops is porcelain tile, which does not produce fumes or support mold or mildew growth (although the grout used between the tiles does). Look for a product that uses naturally occurring clays and locally-mined minerals. There are also tile products made from recycled tiles.

Kitchen Appliances

You may already own a refrigerator and stove, but keep in mind that today’s appliances require just twenty percent of the energy needed to run older ones. If it is time to buy new appliances, choose products that carry the Energy Star certification label, which means they are highly energy efficient. And get rid of that old energy-sucking basement beer frig! However, remember that those appliances have already emitted CO2 during the manufacturing process, so you need to consider that embodied carbon. That’s a good argument for buying high quality products in the first place because they last onger and their manufacturing emissions can be factored over many years. It also means that if you have a choice between repairing and buying new smaller appliances (given a similar cost), repairing could lessen the carbon load.

If you are renovating, give some thought to relocating appliances for increased energy efficiency. For instance, heat makes refrigerators and freezers work harder, so try not to locate them near windows, heat ducts, radiators, or the stove.

How you use your appliances is important too. They use energy even when they are not being used, so pull the plug when you’re not using them or plug them into a power bar and turn that off at night. If you use a dishwasher, turn off the dry cycle on the dishwasher and let dishes dry naturally, or dry by hand. Pressure cookers and steamers use less energy than conventional ovens. Well maintained and regularly cleaned appliances will run better and save energy. So defrost the freezer regularly, check the seals, and de-scale the kettle and other appliances (and investigate softening your water).

We don’t always think about a water heater as an appliance, but it is. The newer tankless models save a great deal of energy and provide on-demand hot water. If you have the conventional sort, check to see if its storage tank is well insulated. A tank that is warm to the touch needs more insulation. Wrapping it with insulation can reduce standby heat losses by twenty-five to forty-five percent and save up to ten percent in water heating costs. You can buy an easy-to-install kit at a hardware store; it will pay for itself in about a year. Lower your water heater temperature to one hundred and twenty degrees F (forty-nine C); any higher than that risks scalding anyway. For each ten degrees F reduction in water temperature, you can save between three and five percent in energy costs. Washing your clothes in cold water will also save energy. Unless you’re dealing with oily stains, the warm or cold water setting on your machine will generally do a good job of cleaning your clothes. Switching your temperature setting from hot to warm can cut a load’s energy use in half. And it will help your clothes last longer too.

A renovation is a great time to replace your heating/cooling system’s thermostat. A programmable model is a good investment, saving you up to fifteen percent on your energy bill. But even if you have the regular kind, you can still manually regulate the temperature when you’re not home. Adjusting temperatures five to eight degrees F (down in winter, up in summer) can help save energy if you’re going to be away from home for several hours. Even when you’re home in winter, you can add another blanket at night and wear a sweater during the day.

Bathroom

A poorly equipped bathroom can be, literally, a real drain on both natural resources and your bank account. So it’s a good place to green up. You could begin by referring back to the tips in Chapter 3 about conserving water in your bathroom, and replacing showerheads and faucet aerators.

The toilet can typically account for one-third of total household water use – more if the tank’s fittings leak. In one month a single leaky toilet can waste as much as twenty-eight hundred liters (seven hundred and fifty gallons) of water. Even if there is no leak, you might want to consider replacing your old toilet with a more modern one. In my opinion, an ultra- low-flush toilet should be standard in any environmentally friendly bathroom.

Low-flush toilets had a bad name when they were first introduced onto the market back in the early 1990s. They often plugged or at least didn’t clean the bowl adequately, prompting many users to flush twice. However, manufacturers responded to the complaints and the newer models perform well with powerful flushes and wide trapways.

The dual-flush toilet takes water-efficiency one step further by using six liters (one-and-a-half gallons) of water to flush solid waste but only half that to flush liquid waste. Dual-flush toilets typically use a “washdown” flush action versus the siphonic flush action more common in North American toilets. Before you replace your old toilet with a low-flush model, check with City Hall. Many municipalities have subsidized toilet replacement programs.

Another alternative is to go completely waterless with a composting toilet, which will reduce your organic “waste” to an odorless nutrient-rich fertilizer suitable for your garden. Although the cost of a good unit is high, the long-term savings are significant. Composting toilet systems require careful siting and installation, as well as electricity for operating the fan and/or heater. You must also be prepared to prevent toxic chemicals from being dumped down the toilet, and to do some regular maintenance.

If you cannot afford a new toilet, you might settle for one of the retrofit devices that have been developed to allow older toilets to operate on less water. The most common approach is placing a displacement device such as a filled plastic bottle or a brick in the tank in order to reduce the volume of water used to flush. Bricks may deteriorate and cause damage to the flushing mechanism, so if you go this route, wrap the brick in plastic. You can also create a dam using two pieces of flexible plastic wedged into the tank on either side of the flush valve to hold back some water each time the toilet is flushed. These devices can reduce water consumption by about fifteen percent.

Yet another toilet retrofit approach is the early-close flapper. This device replaces the standard flapper valve and is designed to shut sooner, before all the water in the toilet tank can flow into the toilet bowl. Early-close flappers often are adjustable, so you can find a good balance between saving water and having the toilet bowl reliably cleared. Because the flush has the weight of a full tank of water behind it, this method provides a cleaner flush than dams or bricks.

If your bathroom doesn't have an efficient ceiling ventilation fan, do consider installing one that is vented to the outside. It will prevent the build-up of mold, which is not only very unhealthy but damages your home and its finished surfaces. For more information about mold, consult Chapter 4.

Fabrics

Another way to make sure your home is as green and healthy as possible involves your choice of household fabrics for window coverings, upholstery, carpeting, and so on.

Although environmentally and health conscious consumers have traditionally favored natural fibers – primarily cotton – over synthetic, conventional cotton is a poor choice. Cotton is one of the most toxic crops grown. It uses approximately twenty-five percent of the world’s insecticides and more than ten percent of the pesticides. In addition, over two billion pounds of synthetic fertilizers are applied to conventional cotton. To put these numbers into perspective, it takes roughly one-third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for just one T-shirt. And of these, the U.S. EPA considers seven of the top fifteen pesticides to be possible, likely, probable, or known human carcinogens.

Fortunately, there is a rapidly developing organic fiber industry, which will help solve the problem of dressing your home in a manner that is healthy for both your family and the environment. You now have your choice of a growing selection of bedding, window coverings, and towels made from organic wool, linen, hemp and flax, in addition to cotton and some newer fibers like bamboo and soy.

Hemp, which can be grown without herbicides or pesticides, has been used for centuries in household linens and work clothes because its fibers are four to six times stronger than cotton and it is hypoallergenic. A strong hemp fiber industry is developing in North America; although hemp cannot be legally grown in the U.S., Canada legalized it in the 1990s.

Bamboo is another potentially environmentally friendly plant that can be used for many purposes including flooring, as we have already seen. Made into fabric, it has a luxuriously soft feel, flowing drape, and many other positive properties including being wrinkle-resistant and absorbent. However, bamboo fabric is not necessarily as eco-friendly as it’s made out to be because harsh chemicals are often used in the manufacturing of the fiber (which is essentially rayon), although eco-friendly processes are being evolved. And in a controversial move in 2009, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission disputed the claims of bamboo clothing manufacturers that their products were antibacterial and biodegradable.

Bamboo’s biggest eco benefit is that it grows quickly and is one of the most renewable resources on earth. Chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are not needed to grow it, as it is seldom eaten by insects or infected by pathogens, and it does well in impoverished soils. Bamboo also has relatively low water needs, especially compared to cotton and most other crops. In addition, its roots help retain water in a watershed area due to their tight hold on the soil. It has been reported that, compared to an equivalent stand of trees, bamboo takes in more carbon dioxide, removing this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, and produces thirty-five percent more oxygen.

Aside from the fabrics used, your choice of window covering styles can make a big contribution to the greenness of your home. In cold climates, window quilts can provide a great deal of protection from cold infiltration through window surfaces. In an article in Natural Life Magazine, green interior designer Eileen Wosnack provided simple instructions for home sewers who want to make their own window quilts. She said that the quilt should have two or three layers for optimum insulation. The decorative fabric layer, which will face the room, can be light and match the room style, while a middle layer of black or white organic cotton flannel will afford additional thermal value. The backing, which will face outside, can be white organic cotton to reflect the sunlight in the summer. Quilting the three layers together will help keep them in place. And the shade can be hand rolled and pinned up when not in use, or equipped with rings and cords for easy raising and lowering. For optimum protection against the cold, Velcro can be used to seal the quilt to the sides of the window frame.

Bedroom

We spend about a third of our lives in bed, so the quality of the air and of the materials of which our mattress and other bedding is made is important to our health. If you are undertaking a bedroom renovation – perhaps ripping out carpet and installing wood flooring, and refinishing the walls – that is a good time to also replace your old mattress – especially if it was made using petroleum-based chemicals, foams, and plastics. However, be careful what you choose as a replacement.

The popular visco-elastic polyurethane foam (“memory foam”) products include toxic substances like toluene di-isocynate, polyether glycol, silicone surfactant, tertiary amines, stannous octoate, flame retardants, and pigments/dyes. These compounds continue to evaporate into the air and are then inhaled by the person sleeping on the bed. The close proximity of sleeper to mattress results in breathing these VOCs in higher concentration than in other situations and they can also become part of house dust as the foam breaks down over time.

Research suggests people can become ill after repeated and continuous exposure to these chemicals. There are common complaints of fatigue, migraines and other headaches, eye irritation, skin rashes and itching, muscle and joint pain, sore throat, shortness of breath, onset of asthma attacks, and more after sleeping on these mattresses. Worse, some of these substances are documented carcinogenic and mutagenic compounds, and have the ability to weaken or damage the immune and nervous systems.

Polyurethane foam is inherently combustible, resulting in the need for fire retardation. The U.S., Canada and EU have flammability standards for all mattresses sold. These are generally performance-based, meaning they don’t specify how manufacturers should make their products safe, nor do they require manufacturers to disclose their method of choice to consumers.

The Canadian legislation specifies three ways to meet the regulation: treatment with fire retardants, use of smoulder resistant filling materials, and use of barrier materials. Until a few years ago, manufacturers regularly used fire retardants like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE). After research suggesting it could create nervous and reproductive system damage, most manufacturers voluntarily stopped using PBDE in bedding in the mid-2000s. However, the replacement chemicals, such boric acid, phosphate esters, or TCEP, are also toxic. The Labour Environmental Alliance Society (LEAS) has canvassed the major Canada manufacturers of mattresses and been told that fire retardants are seldom their method of choice. The U.S.-based Sleep Products Association claims that its members also tend to avoid chemical retardants and, instead, use “fire resistant barriers of man-made fibers” – the content of which is unknown. If you wish to purchase a mattress without fire retarding chemicals, you may be able to obtain an exemption via a prescription from your doctor.

Some mattresses are made either entirely or partially of latex foam. Since this is derived from the sap of rubber trees, it’s advertised as a natural alternative to other kinds of foam. It supports the body well, and has antibacterial and anti-dust mite qualities, although some people are allergic to it. Its high cost means that the vast majority of latex mattresses on the market are, in fact, made from a combination of natural and synthetic latex. Unfortunately, the synthetic version doesn’t have the positive qualities of the real thing. And it is a styrene-butadiene polymer, exposing workers to a carcinogen in the production process.

Because of the low-flammability characteristics of wool, it’s a very desirable material to use inside or as a cover for futons and mattresses. But be sure you choose organic.

The material that covers a mattress is another source of concern. Conventional mattresses for children are often covered in vinyl, which begins life as a hard plastic and is softened using additional harmful chemicals like phthalates. In many countries (including Canada and the U.S.), the sale of children’s mattresses containing phthalates is illegal. Cotton is a better material, but conventional cotton bedding is bleached and treated with chemical dyes, color fixers, permanent-press and stain- and water-repellent finishes.

As with other materials, be sure to look for third-party certification seals, rather than something made up by the manufacturer or retailer. The Organic Trade Association’s website includes a directory of manufacturers and retailers of organic mattresses and other bedding products in the U.S. Some mattresses will bear the Oeko-Tex® seal. The Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 certification is a third party testing program that, while not organic, assures that textile products with its logo are free from harmful levels of more than one hundred substances known to be detrimental to human health.

Insulation

One of the most cost-effective green home renovation projects is also one of the simplest. Insulating and sealing your home will pay for itself many times over in energy savings. According to Natural Resources Canada, air leaks can bleed as much warm air from your house as an open window would – a big open window: In a pre-1945 house, the air leaks can add up to the equivalent of a hole in your wall twenty-one inches in diameter and, in a more modern conventional home, fourteen inches. A thorough air sealing job can save at least fifteen percent on your heating bill.

Contractors can test your home for air tightness. But you can find most leaks yourself. On a windy day, hold a lit incense stick next to your windows, doors, electrical boxes, plumbing fixtures, electrical outlets, ceiling fixtures, attic openings, and any other locations where there could be possible air paths to the outside. If the smoke stream travels horizontally, you have located an air leak that may need caulking, sealing or weatherstripping. A feather or a piece of tissue held to the baseboards, window frames, etc. on a cold day will also show you the drafts.

Once you have found the leaks, caulk and weatherstrip any doors and windows that need it. Also caulk and seal air leaks where plumbing, ducting, or electrical wiring penetrates through exterior walls, floors, ceilings, and soffits over cabinets. Install gaskets behind outlet and switch plates on exterior walls.

If you have access to the attic or crawl space, or if your basement is insulated, look for dirty spots in the insulation, which often indicate holes where air leaks into and out of your house. You can seal the holes by stapling sheets of plastic over the holes and caulking the edges of the plastic.

Your home’s duct system is a network of ducting in the walls, floors, and ceilings that carries the air from your home's furnace or air conditioner to each room. Unfortunately, many duct systems are poorly sealed and not insulated. Ducts that leak air into unheated or non-cooled spaces can add a lot of money to your heating and cooling bills. Sealing your ducts to prevent leaks is even more important if the ducts are located in an unheated area like an attic or vented crawl space. If the supply ducts are leaking, heated or cooled air can be forced out unsealed joints and lost. In addition, unheated air can also be drawn into return ducts through unsealed joints. Look for sections of duct that should be joined but have separated. Then look for obvious holes. If you use duct tape to repair and seal your ducts, look for tape with the UL logo to avoid tape that degrades, cracks, and loses its bond with age.

If your home has a fireplace, keep the flue damper tightly closed when it is not in use. A chimney is designed specifically for smoke to escape, so until you close it, warm air from your house will also escape. Better yet, equip your fireplace with tightly fitting glass doors.

An inefficient furnace is another energy and money waster. So have a heating contractor do a maintenance check every year or two to make sure your furnace is operating at peak efficiency. Keep the furnace filter clean. Replace it yourself every one to two months during the heating season. A dirty filter reduces the air flow to the furnace and makes it run longer.

It’s a larger and more expensive renovation project, but if your house has single-pane windows, installing storm windows will save energy and money. Storm windows will as much as double the R-value of single-pane windows and can reduce drafts, water condensation, and frost formation. As a less costly but also aesthetically less pleasing (and perhaps less healthy) alternative, you can use a heavy-duty, clear plastic sheet on a frame or tape clear plastic film to the inside of your window frames during the cold winter months. Better still, replace your existing windows with double-pane windows.

Whether you are replacing or simply caulking the windows in your home, you should also think about shading the windows from excess sun. Exterior awnings can provide some shade by overhanging the window and shielding the direct sun without depleting the light and, for that reason, are very useful in northern climates with short winter days. Properly constructed, awnings or overhangs will not block winter sun, but will shade the windows in the summer.

Exterior shutters are another possibility. Shutters can be either automatic or manually operated. They can be very protective from the wind and cold, as well as helpful for darkening a room if someone needs to sleep during the day. In areas where break-ins are a concern or for extended absences from the home, exterior shutters greatly deter thieves since the glass is not exposed.

If you prefer a more natural look, trellises or lattices covered with vines and other greenery can provide attractive and functional exterior shade for your windows. Don’t, however, grow vines directly on the walls of your home, since they can damage the bricks or siding and make a huge mess.

This excerpt from Natural Life Magazine's Green & Healthy Homes by Wendy Priesnitz is copyright © Wendy Priesnitz. Learn more and buy the book here.

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